One of the biggest headaches of city driving — finding a parking space — soon may become easier.

Inrix, a Washington-based technology company, has developed apps that can detect open parking spaces at downtown garages, surface lots and metered street spaces, and then alert drivers through in-car navigation systems. Inrix is partnering with select cities in North America to better understand traffic patterns, and says it's working with some automakers to roll out the technology in cars and trucks across the country.

"It's a great benefit for the driver," said Jim Bak, director at Inrix. "Within the next two years, this will be a fairly standardized offering on vehicles."

The Inrix parking apps, shown at a telematics conference last month in Novi, use high-tech sensors in smart meters along certain city streets to show drivers a red-yellow-green heat map on their GPS. Green means parking is available; red means look somewhere else. If meters are broken or don't have the technology, an algorithm predicts with up to 80 percent accuracy where spots should be open.

Already available in Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Cologne and Copenhagen, Inrix says the service will expand to cover 23 cities by the end of the year. Detroit isn't among the cities Inrix has worked with, in part because of its out-of-date and often broken parking meters and the fact that — despite recent progress downtown and in Midtown — it still isn't as hard to find a parking space when compared to many other cities.

The new on-street parking feature joins an off-street Inrix app that launched in 2013; it finds pricing and availability for more than 80,000 parking lots and garages in 31 countries.

Inrix says it has worked with Audi, BMW and Lexus, although none of the three brands has brought anything to market in the U.S. Ford Motor Co. is exploring the use of parking space tracking as part of 25 mobility experiments around the world.

There are benefits for drivers looking for stress-free downtown driving experiences, and for cities trying to better understand traffic patterns and make the most money from available spots.

"Everyone who drives a car knows how much of a hassle parking is," said Dave McCreadie, Ford's manager of electric vehicle infrastructure and smart grids. "Someone who can streamline this is going to reap the commercial rewards of providing their customers the convenience and value. The connected car is going to open up so many possibilities and services."

'We can reshape mobility'

Industry experts say the need for smart parking apps is great.

Inrix cites studies that estimate up to 30 percent of traffic in congested urban areas where street parking is in high demand results from drivers looking for a parking space. They say drivers often spend nearly 20 minutes looking for good spots.

Frost & Sullivan, a Texas-based research firm, found in a recent study that drivers waste an average of 55 hours per year searching for parking. It estimates the cost to consumers and local economies at nearly $600 million in wasted time and fuel.

Those numbers are likely to increase. In its sustainability report published last month, Ford predicts that two-thirds of the world's population will reside in cities by 2030, and a growing middle class will increase the number of cars being driven in urban areas.

And in a recent Ford-commissioned study of drivers age 34 and younger, the automaker found 57 percent are worried about finding a parking spot, and a majority of drivers are interested in technology to solve aspects of driving like parallel parking.

"We think this technology is absolutely critical," McCreadie said. "This is an inflection point where we can reshape mobility."

Detroit's low-tech system

The Inrix technology gets its data from a number of sources, including sensors on meters and in pavement, as well as payment information from parking garages and lots. The cities they've partnered with have installed much of the infrastructure and have shared the data.

"The cities are interested in this information as much as the drivers are," Bak said.

But it would be a challenge for a city like Detroit to utilize the necessary parking data with a low-tech infrastructure and meters that often are broken. Last year, it was reported that about half of Detroit's 3,196 on-street meters didn't operate properly.

Instead of relying on Detroit or other cities to install expensive meters in sensors or parking garages, Ford's technology would let cities access data from vehicles directly, through sensors that are already installed and used for hands-free parking-assist features and blind-spot detection.

McCreadie said the Dearborn automaker has been experimenting with parking for about a year and plans to eventually commercialize it, but there's no plans to bring it to market yet. "The tech is there to transform what has been a pretty antiquated space," he said.

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